It takes a mighty music festival to attract seven presidential candidates and a popular former first lady, but then, the Essence Festival is much more than an opportunity to dance a summer night away in the Superdome.
Now in its 25th year, all in New Orleans but for a brief post-Katrina exile in Houston, Essence Fest is by now an annual institution, an economic boon during the city’s slow tourist season, and a chance for the target African-American female audience to hear from leaders in all sorts of arenas (organizers have long since dropped the word “music” from the fest’s title, to emphasize its broader offerings). This year those leaders included not only Michelle Obama on the main stage, but Democratic hopefuls Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker, Pete Buttigieg, Beto O’Rourke, Bill De Blasio and Michael Bennet, who spoke during day sessions.
That they all came to Louisiana, which won’t hold its primary until April and which is always a general election afterthought, is a testament to what fest organizers have built over a quarter-century.
Yes, they are all Democrats. That makes sense, given that the party is in the midst of a competitive primary season while the Republicans are presumably set to renominate President Donald Trump, and that most African Americans vote Democratic. Yet their presence here should be welcomed by everyone who cares about Louisiana. And that brings us to U.S. Rep. Steve Scalise, the House Minority Whip whose district includes parts of New Orleans.
Scalise took to these pages during the festival to offer his own welcome to the visiting presidential candidates, but it was a decidedly backhanded one.
“While I hope they enjoy Louisiana’s world-famous hospitality, I’d like to know if they’ll be explaining how their far-left agenda would decimate Louisiana’s economy, increase hospital wait times for seniors, and undermine our national security,” he wrote. What a lost opportunity. Scalise could have used their visit to focus on shared concerns, just as he often does with his friend and Democratic colleague from New Orleans, Cedric Richmond. Flooding and the rise of extreme weather comes to immediate mind.
Scalise wasn't the only local Republican pol to offer some inhospitable words. State Sen. Conrad Appel, R-Metairie, posted on Facebook that, "as another Essence Festival, or should I say Democrat love fest, ends I am left to wonder if the attendees really understand what they have embraced." Gov. John Bel Edwards responded by tweeting that "these sorts of comments from Sen. Appel are outrageous and disrespectful to the @essencefest supporters who show up every year."
Edwards, like the candidates who spoke at the festival, is a Democrat, but putting the city’s best foot forward should be a nonpartisan goal. Besides, by the time Essence Fest marks its 27th year, one of these people could be president.